Proximate Cause in Tort Cases

A recent opinion by the Washington Court of Appeals, although unpublished, sheds some light on the doctrine of proximate cause in tort cases. Any doctrine frequently litigated in tort cases is of importance to our practice, so the post today will outline that opinion.

The case is entitled Kress v. State (case number 66352-6-I), and it involves an auto accident where two drivers collided in a head-on collision near a section of highway that was under construction by the State of Washington.

In the case, the plaintiff alleged negligence by the driver as well as the State for maintaining an unsafe road condition, partly causing the accident. The defendant-driver did not dispute liability. So, this seems like a cut and dry case, right? Not necessarily. The plaintiff alleged that not only was the other driver a cause of her injuries, but also that the construction done by the State was a second cause.

Before trial, the State brought a Motion for Summary Judgment, which basically means that it alleged that there were no material issues of fact (including material issues with regard to the cause of the injuries), and therefore nothing for the jury to decide, with regard to the fault of the State only. The State sought to be completely dismissed from the case on this ground. The trial court granted the motion, and the plaintiff appealed.

On appeal, the question was whether the plaintiff had presented enough evidence to preserve the question of whether the construction had contributed to the cause of the accident.  Ultimately, the State tried to analogize with similar cases where plaintiffs presented little or no evidence to support that a purported cause actually contributed to the injury. In effect, those plaintiffs were asking courts to make conjectures and speculate as to the plaintiffs’ theories of the cases. Here instead, the Court of Appeals rejected that argument, and noted that in this case, the plaintiff presented expert testimony, supporting the inference that the defendant driver was slowing down, and could have been making a left turn. The expert also testified that the nature of the road was as such where a driver could have been mistaken into thinking there was a left turn lane when there actually was not one.

These two possibilities combine to render at least plausible the idea that the defendant driver was moving to the side to make a left turn and in fact drove into the lane of oncoming traffic. In other words, the plaintiff had shown enough where she was not asking the court to speculate or make conjectures. In reversing the trial court’s summary judgment, the appellate court was not stating one way or the other that that explanation was the correct one. Instead, it was merely holding that the explanation was plausible enough where the jury should make the ultimate determination of what happened, not the judge.

Cases like this reinforce that in tort cases representing plaintiffs, we take seriously our job to build and develop cases far beyond the point of mere conjecture and speculation.

(This post is intended to be educational and should not be construed as legal advice. If you have questions or believe these issues affect you or your case, please contact an attorney).


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